F2 Bahrain: Norris takes an early championship lead while Markelov steals the show

The 2018 Formula 2 championship kicked off in Bahrain this weekend, with a typically dramatic pair of races, giving us an insight into the brand new car and engine introduced this season, and our first chance to see how the 2018 grid stacks up against one another.

In a turn of events that was unsurprising to some, but impressive nonetheless, F3 champion Lando Norris bagged pole position in only his second round of F2. He narrowly beat fellow Brit and reigning GP3 champion George Russell, who edged out DAMS driver Alexander Albon who lined up third on the grid. Albon was only confirmed for the single round in Bahrain in a seemingly last minute deal, but his impressive performance out-qualifying his more experienced teammate by over half a second surely warrants another chance. Albon’s teammate Canadian Nicholas Latifi was not the only experienced driver who had failed to put together a complete lap in Friday qualifying, title favourite and last year’s runner-up Artem Markelov could only do as well as seventeenth.

Markelov’s weekend would only go from bad to worse when he lined up on the grid for the feature race on Saturday only to stall and be forced to start from the pit lane. He wasn’t the only one, with ex-Formula 1 driver Roberto Merhi also stalling, the first of several cases which prove that these new F2 cars are not the easiest machinery to get off the line.

Copyright: Zak Mauger/LAT Images

It was a dream start for Lando Norris with some lightning quick reactions to get himself off the line, something which he will take a lot of confidence in given the starts were one of his few weaknesses during his 2017 F3 campaign. By contrast, Russell was slow to get moving and even impeded Prema driver Nyck de Vries who was starting behind him. It was not the start he needed if he wanted to get one back against Norris. Albon also found trouble in getting his car moving, and the two of them lost several places in the opening seconds of the race.

For Norris, from there it was a maturely handled race. His only hitch was a slow pit stop, but he had built himself a comfortable lead, so was able to retain this despite the hiccup. When the inevitable tyre degradation kicked in, as it always does around this track in the searing desert heat, he had enough of a cushion to be able to ease off slightly and bring his Carlin home safely. The dominant fashion in which he controlled the race was very reminiscent of some of current champion Charles Leclerc’s victories from last year.

Behind him was a much more chaotic story. While it was Norris’ race to control, it was Markelov’s show to steal. Despite starting from the very back of the field he used his uncanny ability to manage his tyres to pull off a whole host of his usual opportunistic overtakes. The rest of the grid wouldn’t let him make it look easy however, and some of the newer arrivals proved that they could fight just as hard. There was a thrilling moment when the Russian driver, Maximilian Günther and Jack Aitken attempted to go three wide into turn 1. But it was Markelov who bested them all in the end, fighting through almost the whole field to finish a fantastic third place.

Copyright: Zak Mauger/LAT Images

After his poor start George Russell and ART attempted an undercut to gain some time back, and he did manage to finish in fifth in the end, but the tyre degradation was too great for him to gain any significant time back. This was the drawback of the Mercedes junior driver attempting to stop so early. The Pirelli tyres run in Formula 2 are notoriously high degradation, especially on a track like Bahrain, and therefore usually difficult for rookie drivers to adapt to. It will not have been the result Russell was hoping for, especially after making his championship ambitions abundantly clear.

Carlin, a team returning after a year out in 2017, had one of the best results of the race. Alongside Norris’ win, Sergio Sette Câmara brought home a second place finish for the British team, giving them an impressive one-two on their return to the sport. The Brazilian driver was initially overtaken by de Vries in the early stages of the race, but ultimately managed to gain second place back. Where he really proved his worth was in his end of race scrap with Markelov as he fought to defend his second place from the charging Russian. They fought until the very last lap, but clever and aggressive defending was enough to for Câmara to maintain his position.

Albon managed to recover after his poor start and intermittent DRS problems to a respectable fourth place, followed by Russell, and de Vries in sixth who could not find a way to manage his degrading tyres. Sean Gelael, a much criticised and controversial driver, proved his stock by making a very impressive recovery from only qualifying nineteenth to finish seventh. It was rookie Maximilian Günther who finished in eighth to claim reverse grid pole for Sunday’s sprint race, while Jack Aitken and Ralph Boschung took the last points paying positions.

In Sunday’s sprint race, there was yet more drama at the very beginning of the race. Gelael, with the potential for a solid result from his starting position of P2 stalled on the formation lap and was forced to start from the pit lane. There was just more trouble to come. Upon the race start three cars stalled again, failing to get off the grid entirely and they were pushed to the pit lane where they could join the race, albeit a way behind the pack. Two of the stallers were ART pair George Russell and Jack Aitken, with Haas junior driver Santino Ferrucci also failing to get away. Impressively, the other cars managed to avoid the stationary vehicles and everyone got away unscathed.

Copyright: Zak Mauger/LAT Images

The best start in this race was bagged by Nyck de Vries who was starting from third. He overtook pole sitter Günther to claim the lead of the race, while the young German was also overtaken by Markelov who had a storming start from sixth on the grid, the Carlin pair following him to slot into fourth and fifth.

Everyone’s eyes were on tyre degradation throughout the 23 lap race. All drivers had started on the medium tyres, which in theory have long lasting wear. But ever year Formula 2 comes to Bahrain even the most experienced drivers find it difficult to make them last well. Many had speculated whether any of the drivers would attempt to do what Charles Leclerc did last year in the sprint race but taking an unprecedented pit stop and using his fresher tyres to fight back to claim victory. A pit stop is not mandatory in a sprint race, and at almost any circuit other than Bahrain it would not even be considered during a sprint race. But Leclerc had proven last year that it could have its advantages.

In the end it was Prema who attempted to repeat their exploits of the previous year when they pitted de Vries from the lead on lap nine. He had a sizeable lead of around three seconds, but it was very early in the race to expect him to make his new tyres last until the end. It could be argued that it was not a gamble for the win, but an attempt at damage control, as de Vries is not famed for strong tyre management.

His stop meant that Markelov inherited the lead of the race, Günther moved up into second and Câmara took third. Câmara was under pressure from his teammate Norris for some time, but an engine misfire midway through the race sent the Mclaren reserve driver tumbling back a handful of places, and most likely cost him a potential podium. The best the youngest driver on the grid could do was fourth place.

De Vries was rapid after his switch onto softer tyres, and for a while it looked as though he might be able to recover to the podium. But as the laps wore on, his tyres began to degrade again. He still managed to finish in fifth, which is arguably better than he would have done had he not pitted.

Copyright: Zak Mauger/LAT Images

Ahead of him Markelov once again deployed his tyre management skills to hold a lead over Günther who was being put under pressure from the Carlin pair. The Arden driver was struggling to work out how to best manage his tyres, expected perhaps after he made the switch from Formula 3 where drivers are able to push their tyres a lot harder with a lot less degradation. But he showed great composure in holding off both Câmara and Norris, and by the end of the race he was even able to close the gap to Markelov in front.

Behind the Carlin pair and de Vries in fifth, Luca Ghiotto made a quiet recovery from twelfth to finish sixth, while Ralph Boschung rounded off a solid double points scoring weekend by finishing seventh. Rookie and Honda junior driver Nirei Fukuzumi claimed the last point in eighth place.

Norris leaves Bahrain as championship leader, and it was undoubtedly a dream start for the young Brit, as he certainly seemed to have the edge over many of the other rookies. At the moment it seems as though Markelov, who provided most of the thrills of the weekend, is his closest competitor. This should be expected from a driver entering his fifth season at this level, but that is not to take away from the skill and speed he displayed this weekend. Günther is perhaps a surprise as the second rookie in the standings at the moment, taking the points over higher rated drivers like Russell, Aitken and Haas junior driver Arjun Maini. But his rivals would do well to remember that he was more than capable of taking the fight to Norris on his day during Formula 3 last year.

Bahrain is a difficult track to open the season on, especially for those unused to the Pirelli tyres. And it is clear that teams are still trying to work out how to optimise the performance in these new cars, particularly in terms of start procedure. But after a calendar reshuffle this year, the next challenge Formula 2 faces are the streets of the Baku City Circuit, no mean feat given the utter madness it usually delivers.

Formula 2: 2018 Season Preview

The 2018 FIA Formula 2 season begins this weekend under much anticipation and featuring one of the most exiting grids in recent years. A few of the more experienced drivers remain, but with a host of highly rated rookies joining the field, it is expected to be a closely fought championship. This year will also see the introduction of the new Formula 2 car, complete with the halo cockpit protection device, which should shake up the playing field a little more. Teams who have been on top of set up in recent years might find themselves struggling to adjust.

Many are billing this season as the battle of the Brits, with 2017 Formula 3 champion Lando Norris and 2017 GP3 champion George Russell going head to head for the title. But in all likelihood, in a series as unpredictable as Formula 2, it won’t be as simple as just two drivers fighting it out. Although Norris and Russell will likely be at the sharp end of the field, this prediction overlooks a number of other highly capable drivers on the grid.

Though Formula 2 is a series which in the past was considered hard for rookies to adapt to, especially the high degradation Pirelli tyres that are run, Leclerc’s dominant rookie title win in 2017 has dispensed those expectations somewhat. And now any driver with the talent and the form is expected to deliver.

Credit: Malcom Griffiths/FIA Formula 2

Norris and Russell are naturally two names that will come up when discussing potential title contenders, both coming off the back of convincing championship wins and both attached to Formula 1 teams (with Norris a McLaren junior driver and Russell part of the Mercedes Junior team). Driving for ART Grand Prix, Russell will benefit from staying with the team he clinched the GP3 title with, and the French outfit seem to be making a good start to the season already after completing the most laps in pre-season testing. Norris meanwhile will drive for Carlin, a new entry into Formula 2 for 2018, but a team with a rich history in motorsport and a reputation for bringing home trophies. Still, Carlin represents far more of an unknown quantity, and some consider Norris’ choice to join the team a bit of a gamble. Both drivers have made their intentions clear however, if their teams are capable of delivering them the title, then that is exactly what they will set out to do.

Fellow British rookie and ART teammate of Russell, Jack Aitken is another driver aiming for the top prize in 2018. Perhaps slightly overlooked after he lost the GP3 title to Russell in 2017, as Renault test and reserve driver Aitken also has the advantage of being affiliated with a Formula 1 team. As we saw in GP3, Aitken is more than capable of taking the fight to Russell, but his success will probably hang on how well he manages to adapt to the new series, an area in which he lagged behind his teammate last year.

It is unusual for such high expectations to be placed on a group of rookies, but that just goes to show how high the level of talent entering the series is. But Formula 2 is a championship that ordinarily favours experience. With this in mind last year’s runner-up Artem Markelov is a clear favourite. Staying with last year’s team champions Russian Time and entering his fifth year at this level, he has the experience and the credentials to win. And the twenty-three-year-old Russian needs to as well, although he has found himself a role within the Renault F1 team, he is reaching the upper limit of the acceptable number of years to spend in second-tier single seaters before he has to start looking at building his senior career.

Credit: Malcom Griffiths/FIA Formula 2

Many have also placed their bets on Nyck de Vries as a likely title contender. The Dutch McLaren junior driver is entering his second season of Formula 2 with a move to the Italian team Prema who have been consistently fighting for wins and podiums since they entered GP2 in 2016. He will also have the extra motivation of getting to go up against his fellow McLaren junior driver Lando Norris, who has recently been putting him in the shade with his successful run of form. 2018 represents an opportunity for the two drivers to finally go head to head. He has thus far failed to deliver any big results since his Formula Renault 2.0 win in 2014 and hasn’t quite matched the potential he showed in his karting career. But backed by a strong team, 2018 could turn out to be his year.

These may be the likely title contenders, but it would not be surprising to see a few more unexpected names up the top of the leader board. Some of the other newcomers are capable of fighting for podiums, such as BWT Arden pair Maximilian Günther and Nirei Fukuzumi. Günther is following his 2017 title rival Lando Norris from Formula 3 where he finished third last year, and Fukuzumi is another GP3 graduate coming third last year behind his teammates; Russell and Aitken. A number of those staying on for a second or third year were race winners and podium finishers last year, drivers such as Ghiotto, Câmara, Fuoco, Latifi and Albon (the latter two unconfirmed as of yet, but widely speculated to be filling in the vacant DAMS seats) should be capable of repeating those exploits this year.

Credit: Malcolm Griffiths/LAT Images

As ever, it will be hard to determine the standings until a few races have been run and the frontrunners emerge. But expect it to be a closely fought battle this year. Even in 2017, when Charles Leclerc seemingly dominated the competition we saw ten different race winners. If things are as close as they are predicted to be this year, then expect to see even more drivers standing atop the podium.

Bahrain will be a tricky first round too. Formula 2 doesn’t have the luxury of running of running in the evening as Formula 1 does, leaving the drivers to fight against the typical searing heat as well as each other. This usually leaves the rookies at a slight disadvantage, as it makes the already difficult to manage tyres even harder to get a handle on. There will also be further question marks to see how the new cars perform and how to teams and drivers adapt.

Sophie Ogg for International Women’s Day 2018

In her role as Head of Communications at Williams Martini Racing, Sophie Ogg is a familiar face in the F1 paddock. In this interview she talks about working her way up through the motorsport ladder and what life is like in one of the fastest paced jobs in the world.

Georgia Beith: How did you get involved with working for Williams F1?
Sophie Ogg: Motorsport was always a passion and something I just wanted to be around. My first experience was a British Touring Car Championship race at Oulton park that my dad took me along to when I was about 12 years-old and I immediately caught the motorsport bug! I gained some work experience with a local race team, and then built contacts from there. I worked up through a number of race series including Formula BMW, Formula Ford, British GT, A1GP and WTCC before stepping into Formula One with Williams back in 2010.

GB: What does your role as Head of Communications entail?
SO: As Head of F1 Communications, I am responsible for creating and implementing a communications and digital strategy for our Formula One and Heritage operations to support the business aims of the Williams Group. I oversee a two press officers but also work with all the divisions across the company regarding F1 looking after internal and external F1 communications, social media platforms, our CSR programme, announcements, launch events and fan engagement. In a nutshell I take all the information from inside the team, and work out what and how best to communicate it to the fans and media. The role is extremely diverse and a 24-hour a day job, so the challenge is to remain proactive as well as being versatile enough to react to the changing climate both at track and away from it.

GB: What would your typical working day during a race weekend look like?
SO: At the track, race weekends are quite formulaic up to a point. We have a schedule which constantly evolves, social media to manage, news to monitor, media interviews to oversee and content to create and then during sessions I’ll be based in the garage. Whatever happens, it’s up to me to decide how we handle it from a communications point of view, whether it’s a good result or a bad one. It’s also great being able to work with the engineering team as well as the senior management to construct any statements. The main thing people notice in this role is the fast pace at which you need to operate, things change so fast from an accident or failure on track, to a last-minute driver change before qualifying, and all need to be managed accordingly in the moment.

GB: What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
SO: There are the obvious things like it being a 24/7 job, dealing with difficult situations or leaks in the media, but the toughest challenges are being reminded that it is a dangerous sport. Everyone involved knows the risks, but it doesn’t stop it being emotionally tough when things do go wrong. I’ve lost a number of friends over the years, Dan Wheldon and Henry Surtees to name a couple, and Suzuka 2014, having to inform our drivers about Jules’ crash following the race, and then us subsequently losing him, is something that stays with you. The support everyone gives each other in the paddock is like a family but times like that are really tough.

GB: What has been the highlight of your time working in Formula 1/motorsport?
SO: One of my favourite memories would be Pastors’ win in 2012, I had to ask someone where to go after the race as I had never recced what do when you win – it highlights the thing I love about racing – the fact that anything can happen! But I’m also really proud of the 40th anniversary fan event we put together at Silverstone last year. Putting together the whole plan for the 40th was fun, but hard work, and that event was the culmination of a crazy idea one day the year before, and a lot of work to pull it all together! It was also incredible to see the fan reaction, and to also be reminded of the goodwill and support Williams had from everyone both inside the paddock and outside. The number of well-known personalities and ex-F1 drivers and champions that turned up is testament to that!

GB: Have you always been a fan of motorsport? Was it always a goal of yours to work within motorsport?
SO: Motorsport was a passion and something I just wanted to be around. Ever since my dad took me to Oulton Park when I was 12. No one in my family was involved, but my nan knew someone who was involved in a local single-seater race team and so passed on a telephone number. I made the call and from that, I started washing wheels and helping out on events, basically doing anything just to be involved and learn more about the sport and make as many contacts as possible in the industry. From then it was never a question, motorsport was where I would always want to be.

GB: Was there ever a time in your motorsport career when you faced challenges or obstacles because of your gender?
SO: To be honest, the only real challenge I had was outside of motorsport. My friends and some of my teachers couldn’t understand my passion for motorsport and so didn’t understand that this was a serious thing I wanted to do. Careers advisers told me to get a more realistic career goal and friends would mock me for not wanting to go out on a Friday night because I was heading to a race track at 6am Saturday morning! Within the industry though, I have never faced any real issues. I think because I worked my way up from the bottom, and had a genuine interest and passion for engineering and racing, everyone I have come across has accepted me, trusted me, and treated me as an equal. When I first meet anyone new, many of them do appear to look at me like I am just another PR person who will be a pain and make their life difficult, but as soon as I’ve had just one conversation and told them what I am about, and why I am there, their opinions seem to change. I do think this is the case for men or women though, people will always find it easier to have more respect for people who have worked from the bottom and travelled the same path as them through motorsport ranks. I would like to think that I have earned my place.

GB: Do you feel life has changed for women in motorsport in recent years? How do you see it changing in the future?
SO: I think it is much easier for women now. When I started there were pretty much no women in the paddock, but I always felt at home in a man’s world because most of my best friends were male – mainly due to me having more in common with them as my favourite things were football and racing cars! But I can see it could be intimidating. These days there are a lot more women though and things are changing to encourage women to follow their passion whatever that may be. Programmes like Dare 2 Be Different are helping highlight all the various career paths as well. I think this will only continue in future. But I do believe that everyone should be encouraged to follow their passion, both men and women. Nothing should stop anyone following their dreams.

GB: As a female role model within motorsport, what advice would you give young girls apprehensive about pursuing a career in such a male dominated industry?
SO: Don’t let anyone tell you that you that you can’t do something. Don’t be intimidated and don’t try to be something you are not. Get experience, make contacts and be prepared to work from the bottom up. Motorsport is more than just a job, it’s a way of life, and so you need to love it to be prepared to work that hard for something I think. All the women I know who are successful in motorsport, from mechanics and engineers, to press officers and lawyers do it because they love their jobs and they don’t see themselves as being ‘different’ or doing something out of the ordinary in any way.

Formula E reveals its new generation of car

After much hyped and anticipation, the newly named ABB FIA Formula E Championship unveiled its next generation of car on the 30th January 2018. Posed to make its debut in the 2018/2019 season at the end of the year, the car will be used for three seasons, and marks the first time a car has been specially designed by the FIA for one of its own series.

In keeping with the ethos of Formula E, the new model is decidedly more futuristic and advanced looking than its predecessor. The sharp angles and neat lines all constitute a more modern era of motorsport. And given Formula E’s focus on leading the way in new automotive technology and trying to push motorsport into new, uncharted territory, the Gen2 car seems a perfect fit.

Not only does the season 5 car feature an updated look, it also comes with a host of technological updates. Though the majority of the technical specs are yet to be released, the FIA can confirm that this new model comes ‘almost double the energy storage capacity and double the range’ meaning the battery will now be able to complete full race distances. This means getting rid of the contentious car swap that currently happens at the midpoint of Formula E races.

The Gen2 car and the work of the team of engineers and designers has attracted much praise. FIA President Jean Todt expressed how the car heralds the start of “exciting times for Formula E” and that he considers the FIA’s unprecedented project of designing and developing a car to be a “huge success”. Alejandro Agag, founder and CEO of Formula E, also believes that the car represents Formula E’s goal of “breaking the mould and challenging the status quo – bringing a revolution to motorsport”.

This new model will hit the track at the end of the year, just in time for Nissan and BMW formally joining Formula E, with Mercedes-Benz and Porsche planning their entry for the following season.

The full technical specifications and physical model of the Gen2 car will be revealed on the 6th of March at the Geneva Motor Show.

Interview with Harry Thompson: one of Red Bull’s youngest junior drivers

In a bid to reinvigorate their junior driver program, over the course of 2017, Red Bull recruited four young karters to its Junior Team. One of this select handful of up and coming talents is 13-year-old British karter, Harry Thompson, who becomes one of the youngest ever members of the programme.

We had the chance to speak with Harry about karting, Red Bull and his goals for the future.

Markus Berger/Red Bull Content Pool

“I started go karting at the age of 5…my Dad’s friend’s son had done karting and asked if I wanted to give it a go. Dad took me and I have been hooked ever since.”

Hooked, and successful too. Competing in the Cadet class of go karting, Thompson was the holder of several national titles by the age of 12, and took the step to the Junior class in 2017. This is where he caught the attention of Red Bull, who were keeping an eye on the international karting scene as part of their new strategy of looking beyond the usual junior single seater categories of motorsport to find their new star.

“After a few good performances, Red Bull showed interested. They invited me to have a drive on their simulator and after testing on the simulator Red Bull decided to give me a contract.”

Markus Berger/Red Bull Content Pool

The Red Bull Junior Team is notoriously successful at nurturing young drivers and bringing them through the ranks to Formula 1, and arguably has the highest success rate of churning out F1 drivers. Formula 1 is where Thompson’s eyes are set, but like many young drivers nowadays, he “would be happy to drive any formula for a living”. He hopes that with Red Bull’s backing, he will be able to achieve this dream.

Many of the other successful examples of graduates from the Red Bull Junior Programme act as inspiration for Thompson:

“Verstappen has done a fantastic job with Red Bull. I look up to him because he has achieved a lot in go karting. Ricciardo seems like a very down-to-earth character who I also have a lot of respect for.

“I also think Lewis Hamilton has done an amazing job and I look up to him.”

After a busy 2017, in which he won the IAME X30 International Final with Fusion Motorsport, Thompson is aiming for a few more years in karting with Red Bull’s backing:

“I will hopefully be competing at the highest level and this could lead into a single seater drive when I am around 15/16.”

We here at ThePitCrewOnline wish Harry all the success for the future, and if you want to follow his progress you can find his Facebook page here.

F2 Abu Dhabi Preview: Wrapping up the 2017 season

The eleventh and final round of the inaugural FIA Formula 2 Championship will take place at Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi this weekend, bringing to a close the 2017 season. Last year the GP2 race weekend saw current Formula driver Pierre Gasly crowned drivers’ champion, and Prema Racing take home first place in the team standings, completely the double in their first season competing at this level of single seater racing. Having tied up the driver’s championship last month with Charles Leclerc, Prema will be looking to replicate their 2016 success by sealing the team title as well. The Italian outfit currently sit top of the standings, but with DAMS only two points behind them and Russian Time four points further back, it is by no means a sure thing.

Though it is Prema’s Leclerc who has been the undisputed man of the season, all three teams will fancy their chances as they boast strong driver line-ups when fortune goes their way. Whoever walks away as champion will depend upon their drivers’ abilities to deliver when the pressure is on. Both Prema and DAMS are confirmed as competing in Formula 2 next season, but with a question hanging over Russian Time’s future in F2, perhaps they will be looking to bow out on a high by securing their first championship since their debut season in 2013?

Photo: Zak Mauger/FIA Formula 2.

The grid will see two changes to the one which lined up at the last round in Jerez, with one returnee to the series and one newcomer. Ex-Formula 1 driver Roberto Merhi will contest his fourth round of the season for Rapax, in place of Rene Binder, having previously driven for the team at Spa and Monza. But with more excitement and anticipation surrounding his debut will be this year’s FIA European Formula 3 champion Lando Norris. Racing for Campos in place of Ralph Boschung, the young Brit is widely rumoured to be competing in F2 next year, alongside his role as reserve driver at McLaren, so there will be a lot of interest to see how this highly rated youngster stacks up against the likes of Leclerc, Rowland and Markelov. Though it is worth remembering that the step up from F3 to F2 is considerable, and Campos Racing has not been a frontrunner this year, but if Norris is as talented as the hype suggests, then he could throw an unexpected spanner in the works for the rest of the grid.

As has been the case for most of the season thus far, Charles Leclerc will be one to watch this weekend, as he will attempt to take his tally of pole positions for this season to an eye-watering nine out of eleven. With the title already wrapped up, the Monegasque driver has little to lose by attempting to end his season on a high note. Rumours have been circulating for months now that he will take the step up to Formula 1 in 2018, likely at Sauber, and with the eyes of the F1 paddock on him, Abu Dhabi is his last chance to prove that he deserves a shot.

While Leclerc has already sealed his championship win, the runners-up spots, and the all important forty super license points that they come with, are still to be decided. While a number of drivers are technically within touching distance, it looks likely that second and third place will go to either Oliver Rowland, Artem Markelov, or Luca Ghiotto, with Rowland’s teammate Nicholas Latifi still in with an outside chance. All four drivers are also tangled up in the fight for the team’s title, so there will be two goals at the forefront of their minds when they take to the track this weekend.

Photo: Zak Mauger/FIA Formula 2.

Another one to watch this weekend is the youngest driver on the grid, MP Motorsport’s Sergio Sette Camara. The Brazilian had a shaky start to the season, but since his win at Spa, he has been noticeably more confident, and his results have shown it. Also, just this last weekend, Sette Camara contested the F3 Macau Grand Prix – the blue ribbon event of the junior formula calendar – and proved to be one of the standout stars of the weekend. He would have likely been this year’s winner had it not been for a last corner incident, joining an illustrious list of names that include Ayrton Senna and  Michael Schumacher.

While it is too late for Leclerc’s Prema teammate and fellow Ferrari junior Antonio Fuoco to join the fight for the top places in the standings, in the previous three rounds things have clicked for the Italian, and he has begun to perform amongst the best drivers. It may have taken a while for his performances to come together but now he is on a good run of form, Fuoco may prove to be the key to Prema sealing a second successive team’s title.

Photo: Andrew Ferraro/FIA Formula 2.

Fuoco’s place at the team next season is rumoured to be likely, but Leclerc’s vacant Prema seat has already been filled for 2018. It was recently announced that Indonesian driver, Sean Gelael, who currently sits fifteenth in the standings, will move from Arden for next season. It was an announcement that surprised many, since more highly rated drivers such as Lando Norris and 2017 GP3 champion George Russell were also attached to the empty seat. With a number of doubters and his fair share of critics, Gelael will be under extra scrutiny this weekend to show that he is worthy of stepping up to one of Formula 2’s most dominant teams.

Not only does this weekend mark the end of the 2017 season, but it will also be the last time that the GP2/11 car will be used. As of next season the Formula 2 of car, revealed earlier this year at Monza (LINK), will be used in the 2018 season, featuring the ever-controversial halo cockpit protection device. The GP2/11 has been in use in 2011 (CHECK), delivering innumerable races of high entertainment and drama, as well as being driven by some of the current stars of motorsport, its final race will mark the end of an era in junior single seater racing.

As has been the case for most of the year, Abu Dhabi is sure to provide us with some heart-racing entertainment as this year’s crop of young drivers seek to see out the season in style.

Lando Norris becomes FIA Formula 3 Champion at last

On Saturday McLaren junior driver and much acclaimed star of the future Lando Norris finally secured the FIA European Formula 3 title at Hockenheim with two races still left to run. Those who follow the series closely will have been surprised not to see him clinch the championship sooner, and he would have. Had it not been for a last lap tangling with Ralf Aron during the last race of the penultimate round at Spielberg. Even more impressively, Norris becomes the first non-Prema Powerteam driver to win the F3 title in the past six years, highlighting the amazing work both the driver himself, and his team, Carlin, have done over the course of 2017.

Champion 31 Lando Norris (GBR, Carlin, Dallara F317 – Volkswagen), FIA Formula 3 European Championship, round 10, race 3, Hockenheimring (DEU), 13. – 15. October 2017

While Norris’ season got off to a shaky start, in the latter half of the year the consistent results started to roll in and in a tightly packed field, Norris began to emerge as a favourite for the title. No doubt he benefitted from a downturn in form from one of his nearest rivals, Swedish driver Joel Erikkson, and the disappearance of Prema’s usual dominance. But Norris took the chances when they came his way and in the end there was little doubt that he would walk away with the title. His ability to keep improving over the course of the season it was makes him such a strong competitor, and is probably part of the reason why the young British driver has won the title in almost every series he has competed in to date.

This ability to keep building on his natural talent and skill start, is probably most evident in his race starts. In the first few rounds of 2017 while Norris would ordinarily pull out stellar qualifying performances, he would struggle to get off the line smoothly, sometimes stalling completely. It didn’t always mean he was destined to finish down the order, but it certainly did not help his case. However, by the last few rounds, Norris seemed to have conquered these demons and removed the weakness from his arsenal.

It is also probably no coincidence that Norris really hit his stride just after his participation in the in-season test for McLaren at the Hungaroring back in August. Whether it the positive press he received after an impressive first showing F1 machinery provided a confidence boost for the seventeen-year-old, or he unlocked a new level to his performance working with them, the effect was positive. Expectations were high after his showing during the two-day test, and it would have been very easy for the young driver to buckle beneath it all, but if anything it seemed to spur him on to prove that he could live up to the hype.

31 Lando Norris (GBR, Carlin, Dallara F317 – Volkswagen), FIA Formula 3 European Championship, round 10, race 3, Hockenheimring (DEU), 13. – 15. October 2017

2017 marks another year in what is shaping up to be quite an impressive junior career for the most recent recipient of the McLaren Autosport BRDC Award. Since his 2015 MSA Formula title, Norris has added the top prize of every full series he’s competed in to his resume. And the Formula 3 title makes it his fifth championship in around two years, which can go someway in explaining why he is rated so highly.

So what’s next for the young British driver? Reports indicate that he will most likely become McLaren’s official reserve driver in 2018, taking that role from F1 World Champion Jenson Button. Most likely he will attempt to follow up his Formula 3 success with a stint in either Super Formula or Formula 2 – with many linking him to a F2 seat at Prema Racing who just took Charles Leclerc to the title in his rookie year.

Though he is certainly setting himself up for success in Formula 1, where he will hopefully find himself in the future, next season would perhaps be a season or so too soon. The raw ability is undoubtedly there, but as his early season difficulties and rashness in Austria show, there are still a few choice areas where some ironing out is required. It is easy to forget just how young Lando Norris is, and sometimes it does peek through in his racing. However, he is not yet eighteen, so time is on his side.

F2 Jerez: Leclerc crowned champion in a dramatic pair of races

Running as the main event this weekend in Jerez, Formula 2 seemed determined to offer up drama and madness to the very last lap of the very last race. And if the on track action was not enough, Jerez provided us with the crowning of the series’ first champion, as Charles Leclerc secured the title on Saturday bagging himself back to back GP3 and Formula 2 championships in his bid to earn himself a seat on the 2018 Formula 1 grid.

His qualifying performance on Friday saw him take his eighth pole position of the season, officially equalling Stoffel Vandoorne’s record for the most poles in a season of GP2/F2. Lining up beside him was Russian Time’s Luca Ghiotto, who was looking for a late season surge to seal the Vice-Champion title. And behind them was MP Motorsport’s Sergio Sette Camara, the youngest driver in the field who has hit his form since his win in Belgium. Likely to Leclerc’s relief, his nearest rival Oliver Rowland only managed fourth in qualifying. Knowing that he needed to outscore Leclerc to stay in contention, Rowland had made his job a little harder than it needed to be.

The start of Saturday’s feature race went exactly to plan for Leclerc, who pulled away and began building a gap between himself and the rest of the field almost immediately. With perhaps a hint of desperation, but all the guts and determination worthy of a championship contender, Rowland overtook Sette Camara in the opening laps in an aggressive move that was entirely necessary to keep his title hopes alive. He set about trying to find away past Ghiotto, but while he battled away with the Italian, Leclerc was storming away in front. Eventually he found a way past on lap eleven, with a stunning move coming into turn one, but by this point, Leclerc was several seconds up the road.

Photo: Andrew Ferraro/FIA Formula 2

The first round of pit stops began on lap seven, but the leader did not pit until lap twelve, followed closely by Rowland. While Leclerc was able to inherit the net lead of the race, with only the drivers running the alternate strategy ahead of him, Rowland found himself stuck behind Camara and Albon, both of whom had successfully undercut him. It was around this time, when everyone was completing their first pit stops, that it became apparent that the DRS system was not working correctly after it became disabled for seemingly no reason. Whilst not detrimental to the race, it would turn out to be the first in a sizeable list of malfunctions that would occur over the weekend.

After cutting his way through the field, Leclerc retook the lead of the race on lap twenty-one, with Rowland trying to follow, but struggling due to the greater number of drivers he had to overtake. And despite the Brit setting several blistering lap times in his pursuit of the Ferrari junior driver, he couldn’t quite find the pace to close up the gap fully.

The race almost looked like it would run its course to an untroubled end, with Leclerc taking the title comfortably. That was until there was contact between Santino Ferrucci and Nobuharu Matsushita on lap thirty-two which, after a lap’s delay in which not even a single yellow flag was waved (despite debris on track and Ferrucci’s car beached in the gravel at turn one), the safety car was deployed.

Photo: Zak Mauger/FIA Formula 2

As the field bunched together and Leclerc lost the advantage he had worked so hard to gain, it became apparent that some of the late stoppers might be able to use their fresher tyres to make a last minute dash for the podium positions, and possibly even the win. But the real headache for the front runners was the fact that the lapped cars of Sean Gelael and Louis Deletraz either would not or could not, unlap themselves and found themselves caught in the middle of the battle between Leclerc and Rowland with the championship at stake.

To make matters worse when racing resumed neither car was shown blue flags and began to battle with the frontrunners, making it so much harder for Rowland to catch Leclerc, who had bolted at the restart. Rowland even came under pressure from Leclerc’s teammate Antonio Fuoco who had made a stunning recovery drive from fifteenth on the grid and benefitted massively from the late safety car to eventually finish third.

In the end Charles Leclerc was only 0.2 seconds ahead of Rowland when he crossed the line. But it was enough to take the title with three races to spare, an achievement he duly dedicated to his late father after clinching victory in a tribute helmet modelled after one of his father’s own.

Photo: Andrew Ferraro/FIA Formula 2

Formula 2 debutante Alex Palou, racing for Campos in place of Robert Visoiu, took reverse grid pole for Sunday’s sprint race after completing the impressive feat of scoring points on debut. After a delayed start due to a broken down safety car, the race got underway about fifteen minutes later than planned, with Palou making a perfect start and managing to pull away as the rest of the field formed a train behind him.

The feature race on Saturday had proved that while some teams suited the medium tyres (the compound all drivers start on in sprint races), others, including Prema, found it incredibly difficult to maintain any consistent speed with them, and struggled badly for grip. That led to a series of pit stops, which are ordinarily only taken if unavoidable due to the low number of laps in a sprint race.

Amongst the stoppers were the Prema teammates, who, after making their way up to fourth and fifth, found themselves slipping down the order, and crucially behind the DAMS and Russian Times drivers, who they are now fighting with for the team’s championship. And the switch to the soft tyre proved to be the right one. Both Leclerc and Fuoco were posting lap times that were around three seconds quicker than the cars in front of them.

While the Prema pair tried to work their way back through the field Nicholas Latifi and Markelov had closed the gap to Palou who was also beginning to struggle with his tyres. The ensuing battle between the three of them allowed Rowland, who was running in fourth place, to join the fray.

Photo: Zak Mauger/FIA Formula 2

Though Palou coped well under the enormous pressure being applied by the more experienced drivers he was finally passed by Markelov, who had used his uncanny ability to manage his tyres to kick his pace up a gear with just a handful of laps to go. Palou would eventually fall from the podium places with the DAMS drivers Latifi and Rowland able to score a double podium for their team, and the Spaniard would ultimately finish in eighth place.

Markelov would be able to pull away and win by a stunning margin of eleven seconds earned through pitch perfect strategy and timing. Though both Fuoco and Leclerc did make it back into the points, the overtaking and fighting took it out of their softer tyres, and the best the new champion could do was seventh place, which his teammate leading him home in fifth, with Nyck de Vries sandwiched between them. Despite being run off the track on the first lap and having the fight his way from plumb last, Luca Ghiotto made a single stop strategy work for him as well to make an excellent recovery to finish in fourth place.

Photo: Zak Mauger/FIA Formula 2

It will come as a surprise to few to see Charles Leclerc wrap up the championship so emphatically with a round to spare, but that does not mean there is nothing left to play for when Formula 2 returns in Abu Dhabi for its final two races of 2017. The question of who will take home the title of vice-champion still remains unanswered, and while it may seem like something of a consolation, second and third place in the championship each come with forty super license points – the number required to be eligible for a FIA super license and to be able to compete in Formula 1.

The battle to win the F2 team’s title is also incredibly close, with Prema, DAMS and Russian Time all within six points of each other. It’s anyone’s guess as to who will take home that prize when the chequered flag falls on the sprint race in Abu Dhabi.

F2 Jerez Preview: Time for Leclerc to take home the title?

While Formula 1 heads to the Far East this weekend, its main feeder series, the FIA Formula 2 Championship, breaks away to run its first and only standalone event of the season at the Circuito de Jerez for its penultimate event of the season. After a chaotic and confusing round in Monza, this weekend’s round at Jerez presents championship leader Charles Leclerc with his first real opportunity to wrap up the Formula 2 title. Such a feat which would make him the first rookie champion of a feeder series at this level since 2009 when Nico Hülkenberg won the GP2 series.

Leclerc’s outing in Monza saw him fail to score any points, after being taken out from the leading pack on the last lap of the feature race and failing to work his way back into the points on Sunday. Luckily for the Monegasque driver, his nearest rivals, Oliver Rowland and Artem Markelov, also failed to score big. This leaves him firmly at the top of the drivers’ standings with a healthy lead of fifty-nine points. Realistically, it would take a series of disasters to snatch the title away from the Ferrari junior driver, who looks poised to make the jump to Formula 1 next year, most likely with Sauber.

Photo: Sam Bloxham/FIA Formula 2.

Whilst Rowland and Markelov have been busy fighting with Leclerc, Markelov’s Russian Time teammate Luca Ghiotto has been slowly racking up the points. After a fourth place and a win in his home race in Monza, he is now only two points behind his teammate and only nine behind the second placed Rowland. The Italian is in with a real chance of snatching away the runners up title in these last couple of rounds. Even a fourth place finish in the standings would mark his best result in single seater racing of this level.

After Antonio Fuoco’s win and third placed podium in Monza, the battle in the teams’ standings has closed up, with DAMS, Prema and Russian Time all in with a chance of taking home the big prize. Prema will be hoping that Monza turns out to be something of a turning point for Fuoco, who had previously failed to quite live up to expectations. But with a double podium performance under his belt, many will be hoping that Fuoco can now help Prema defend their team championship. And possibly even aid his teammate Leclerc in bringing home the driver’s title, provided that he can get in between the DAMS and Russian Time drivers.

The ever-changing line-up of the Formula 2 grid mixes things up again this weekend. Spanish driver Alex Palou, currently competing in Formula V8 3.5, joins Campos in place of Robert Visoiu for the rest of the season, who has left the team for personal reasons. Meanwhile, Rene Binder will become Rapax’s fifth driver of the season, replacing ex-F1 driver Robert Merhi for the round in Jerez this weekend. Rapax are yet to confirm whether Binder will remain in the team for the final round in Abu Dhabi at the end of November.

Photo: Zak Mauger/FIA Formula 2

Binder will race alongside Louis Deletraz, who had his best weekend of the year in Monza, scoring points in both races, after switching seats with Nyck de Vries just before the round in Italy. The Swiss driver has been vocal about how he feels that Rapax is a better fit for him than Racing Engineering and the flashes of form we saw from him in Italy seems to confirm this, especially compared to his early season struggles. Though following up on that improved performance will be important in order to finish his year on a high and set himself up for what will hopefully be a second season in Formula 2 next year.

This weekend in Jerez also marks the second home race of the season for both Campos Racing and Racing Engineering. While Racing Engineering have found themselves able to compete at the front of the field in previous seasons, this year has marked something of a step backwards for the Spanish team. They will be hopeful that after a lengthy break between rounds, giving them time to properly adjust to their new line-up of de Vries and Gustav Malja, will help them recover to their full potential.

ART had a mixed weekend last time out, but there were clearly signs of lightning fast speed from the team who are currently dominating the GP3 championship. Whilst British-Thai driver Alexander Albon has struggled to retain his early season form since his injury prior to the Baku round, Honda junior Nobuharu Matsushita put on a positive performance for the French team in Monza. Matsushita even succeeded in becoming the first driver, with the obvious exception of Charles Leclerc, to claim an on track pole position this season. The Japanese driver is being touted as a contender for a possible drive at Toro Rosso next season, but it would take a stunning string of results to secure the necessary super license points. However, with such a potential reward waiting for him if he does manage to do this, he has nothing to lose this weekend.

Photo: Zak Mauger/FIA Formula 2.

All eyes will be on Charles Leclerc in Jerez to see if he can bring home the title, and his competitors Markelov and Rowland will know that this is one of their last chances to stop him. Although Leclerc has not scored a race win since the feature race in Silverstone, despite misfortune he is yet to show that he has any intention of slowing down or slipping up. But it would be premature to consider the Formula 2 title a done deal. As the last round in Monza proved, anything can happen in motorsport, and it usually does.

Formula 2’s super licence points overhaul; the wrong answer to the right question?

Ever since the GP2 series became the FIA Formula 2 Championship earlier in the year, much work has been done to try mould the series to fit the vision of the FIA. And the latest announcement is that the FIA are looking to make Formula 2 “almost compulsory” for young drivers looking to make it to Formula 1, through the reallocation of the points required to obtain an FIA super licence.

Currently, a driver needs forty points (accumulated within the past three seasons) to obtain a super licence. Through the regulations in place, the top three placed drivers in F2 are awarded the whole forty points, along with the winners of European Formula 3, Formula E, the LMP1 class in the World Endurance Championship, and the IndyCar Series. Technically, this means drivers can skip Formula 2 all together, and young drivers can enter Formula 1 from lower junior categories such as Formula 3 – which we saw in the cases of Max Verstappen and Lance Stroll.

This kind of rapid career progression, often labelled as ‘skipping’ series, has been widely criticised by some who see it as a way for well funded youngsters to find a place in Formula 1 before they are quite ready for the jump. Though this was an issue that was supposed to be avoided by the introduction of the new super licence system in 2016, brought in as a direct response to the seventeen-year-old Verstappen’s arrival on the 2015 F1 grid, the FIA has decided that a reshuffle of the points system is needed to help improve the junior single seater ladder.

Photo: Mauger/FIA Formula 2

Formula 2’s technical director Didier Perrin told Motorsport.com that while F2 wouldn’t “be mandatory in theory…it will be the preferred path to F1”. And though no specific plans or numbers have been revealed, his words clearly indicate that F2 will be given more weigh in the super license system, particularly above Formula 3. The desired effect is clearly a boost to the profile of the Formula 2 Championship, but there has also been a suggestion that Formula 1 wants to create a structure similar to the one in place in MotoGP, where the series is supported by the Moto2 and Moto3 classes. The success created in MotoGP makes the prospect attractive to the Formula 1 bosses, and it is easy to see the benefits.

With Formula 2’s place in the single seater ladder intended to be above Formula 3, it seems only logical that its winners should be awarded more super licence points, and perhaps an oversight that it was ever given the same amount in the first place. With Formula 1 teams able to overlook the category, much has been made of the fact that many recent stand out performers and even winners of GP2 have failed to get a look in at the top tier. While drivers from Formula 3, Formula V8 3.5 (formerly known as Formula Renault 3.5) and DTM were being called up by the big names in Formula 1, those competing in what was supposed to be top junior single seater series were left languishing. Recent graduates have been forced to look elsewhere.

Another benefit, and what is clearly the main intention behind the move, is to prevent the kind of criticism being directed towards F1 that the promotion of Max Verstappen and Lance Stroll inspired. While both drivers acclimated to Formula 1, and have since proven their worth, the moves were met by concerns about their age and experience. Stroll’s early performance in particular, seemed to prove these doubts, and though he has since overcome these troubles, many would still argue that he would have benefitted from a few more seasons in junior formula. By making a season in Formula 2 the preferred route, then future Verstappens and Strolls will have to wait a little longer before making their top tier debut, and inexperienced drivers will be discouraged from moving too fast.

Credit: Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

However, for all these good intentions. There is the argument that this reallocation of the super license points doesn’t address the real problems with the single seater ladder.

Whilst Formula 2 would not be harmed by additional exposure or sponsorship, and an influx of more top young talent. The reason for the lack of graduates from the series to Formula 1 lies not in the series itself, but rather in the absence of available seats in F1. It is all very well encouraging drivers to take their career through F2, but when the rare opportunities for a Formula 1 drive do present themselves, then drivers and teams will not want to wait around until they have satisfied the FIA by climbing the career ladder just the way they laid out.

But perhaps the most glaring issue with Formula 2 and single seater series like it is cost. With a season in Formula 2 can cost anywhere between 1.5 to 2 million euros, for those young drivers who lack substantial backing, it becomes an increasingly unviable option. If the emphasis is placed on Formula 2, then these drivers who cannot afford to race a full season in a front running F2 team run the risk of being overlooked – just as the stars of the series were in the past. It is no good trying to elevate a series without first making it more accessible for hopeful young drivers.

Photo: Zak Mauger/FIA Formula 2

Those drivers who find it necessary to take less traditional routes in their motorsport careers could find themselves ignored if the super licence points do not aid racers who choose to take this path.

While the FIA may want to replicate the Moto2/3 system in single seater racing, this is not a realistic goal with the current costs involved. The price of one seat in Formula 2 would probably be enough to fund an entire team in Moto2 for a whole season. While the FIA have outlined curbing expenses as one of their aims for the future development of F1, it seems pointless trying to bring in small fixes and solutions when the real problem is so much bigger.

The problem the FIA is trying to address, and the improvement of junior series are valid and worthy goals. But what they are suggesting is ultimately a temporary solution to a much wider problem. F1’s new owners have highlighted the growing cost of the sport as an issue, and it is one that needs tackling across single seater racing, or they run the risk of finding that the pool of young talent has run dry when those elusive Formula 1 seats finally do open up.